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Daily Jewish Thought with Rabbi Yisroel Bernath
The Roles of Science and Judaism in the 21st Century: An Interview with Dr. Binyomin Abrams
August 22, 2018 Rabbi Yisroel Bernath and Dr. Binyomin Abrams
DR. BINYOMIN ABRAMS was born and raised in Montreal, Canada. He obtained his Master's and Bachelor's degrees from RPI in Troy, NY. He began his pursuit of Judaism and Jewish studies while working on his doctorate in Physical Chemistry at New York University. Presently, Dr. Abrams lives in Boston with his wife and children where he teaches Chemistry at Boston University. Additionally, he travels extensively, lecturing on various topics, including the interplay of science and Judaism.

Episode Transcript

Speaker 1:0:01Hi Robert, you strobe or nothing? Welcome to my look into her thought. A couple of months ago I had Dr Benjamin Abrams on this podcast and we were talking about the interplay of science and religion and it was the most popular episode I ever had on this podcast, so I invited Dr Abrams, Dr Abrams. Welcome to the podcast. Thanks that. Thanks for having me. So I've gotten a lot of questions from listeners over the past number of months since this episode aired and I would say that the questions they asked were shockingly overlapping, shockingly similar. And so what I thought we would do is talk about some of the more popular questions, but what I'd like to do is instead of just talking about them from a scientific perspective, I like to talk about them from more of a narrative perspective, your personal narrative. So let's get right into it. When it comes to Judaism, a lot of people think that the Jewish laws and the Torah were really a good idea for a certain time period, but we live in the 21st century in 2018 and there's no question that society has advanced technologically, scientifically, and maybe there's no need for it anymore.

Speaker 2:1:30I think that's a great question and one I hear quite a bit. I think that it's true scientifically, technologically, sociologically. I think we are at a very amazing time in human history and I think that we have an amazing opportunity now to take this further than we've ever done before. And I think that's one of the reasons why the message at Judaism brings, is more relevant today than ever. You know, I think that, you know, we talked about last time a little bit how there are there been through it hit all Jewish history, many theologians who were also very, very scientifically minded and in modern times we certainly know a lot of, uh, you know, of scientists who have been very passionate about faith and about something greater than them as well. But I'd like to take this a little bit different direction because, you know, most people may not know this, but I wasn't a religious when I was growing up and I was studying science for a lot longer than I was really studying Judaism and I only started studying more about Jewish faith and theology and Jewish law when I was already in graduate school studying theoretical chemistry.

Speaker 2:2:41And so when it comes to things like quantum mechanics and all of the, that microscopic nature of the world, this is something for me that is, uh, is, is old hat, which is very weird to say it in public because I think most people would say, wow, that's, that's kind of weird and cool and this and this. The Judaism is more new and more novel to me. And so when I, when I think about this idea of the need for spirituality, religion, Judaism, I actually find a lot of that inspiration from the science that I was learning. Right? So one of the, one of the pioneers in the field of quantum theory, it was max planck and, and one of, uh, one of the statements that are attributed to playing cars that men needs both religion and science, that science, a tool of exploration and study of the natural world.

Speaker 2:3:31And religion is a guide to action. There's a story. And the truth is when it comes to stories like this, when we both know that, you know, whether it happened or it didn't happen, it doesn't really actually matter because it really speaks to the heart of the matter in the heart of the point that plank was trying to make was a child receiving a toy. But the instruction manual wasn't within. So while the child could certainly, you know, investigate it and learn the machinations of the toy and really take it apart, put it back together. This is a brilliant child. So when the, when the child put it back together, it wasn't even, there weren't any extra parts leftover afterwards. Like, you know, when I take apart my bicycle and put it back together, I could swear there's a few extra parts that weren't there when I, when I started taking it apart.

Speaker 2:4:13You talking about, uh, but uh, no, it takes apart, put back together, figuring out every way that this thing works. But what's it's purpose? What are you going to do with it? How do you know what the right ways to use in what the wrong ways to that are? And some people might argue that there is no right or wrong way, but I think this is one of those times when we know as a society there are right and wrong, there are things that are, are intrinsically good and there are things that are intrinsically the opposite of good. And so what gives us the guy, what gives this child with this toy, with this mechanical marvel that they've studied from every point of view, what gives them the, the, the, the guide to Action, right? And so applying says that for him was religion. And I think that that's something that to its core is Judaism, right?

Speaker 2:5:09And so from the idea of Judaism is we have a life, we have a certain fixed amount of time on this planet and we're directed to make are the best of it, and that doesn't mean you know, all sorts of fast cars and wonderful food which not knocking fast cards and wonderful food because anyone who knows me knows that I like fast cars and wonderful food, but the point of life is not just, you know, the fleshy pleasures, so to say, but rather to do something meaningful and to have transformative impact on the world. And so while science can certainly tell us what it is that we're studying and perhaps you might argue that rational people faced with those same scientific facts about the way the world works should intrinsically come to the same conclusions. This hasn't been our experience. And rather there's something bigger than just the way it works that's necessary, which is the why should we bother to engage with it in the first place. And so for me, both science and Judaism find very important roles in my life to address those very important and very different in many ways. Questions, I really liked it. You're saying about the what and the why and that Judaism does help you find the purpose and that's wonderful. That's great, but

Speaker 1:6:39what about those archaic was in the Torah, like for example, eating animals. I mean there are some people who look at some of those laws and they say if the tourists going to talk about these types of things, then maybe we can't believe or accept the entire document.

Speaker 2:7:05I think that's a great point. I think it's a great thing to talk about and more importantly, I think you picked a really interesting example of, of, of, of killing animals and eating animals because it's important to realize that if the Torah wouldn't be a complete compendium, if it really wouldn't discuss any circumstances that a rational person might consider doing, then how could you consider it a self consistent and complete guide to action? Meaning if we're going to say the Torah says give charity. That's a way to be a whole person. I think many people would agree that absolutely. Yeah. You don't keep everything for yourself. Give to others, but now the Netherlands is wonderful. Honor your parents, you know, even if you don't always agree with them, there needs to be some level of honor, respect and gratitude for the fact that your life is dependent on the fact that they made the choice to bring you into this world.

Speaker 2:8:06So I think that when it comes to things like that, it's very naturally so yes, of course we agree that every rational person would agree to that, that we need to treat people in a good way, but at the tour would stop there and only talk about those circumstances that every person would agree with. Then what would we do in the circumstances where there's cases where not everyone agrees and there are some tough calls and some interesting perhaps gray areas. How would we know how to behave? And so let's talk about animals. First of all, the tour has a very important principle which is no cruelty to animals when they're alive in the process of the end of their life. A person must always be careful to treat life with. We don't denigrate life and, and there's laws about between people and other people for that reason, but also between people and animals.

Speaker 2:9:03We treat animals with respect and in fact, one of the reasons why kosher slaughtering is one of those, those mitzvahs that's discussed so much is because since the tour takes so seriously the value of the life of the animal, the question is how, if we're going to say that we're going to take the animal's life, which it's not a foregone conclusion, you, you, you don't need to eat animals all the time. I, I, most of the time eat mostly vegetarian food, uh, with it for health reasons or because I like it. But the bottom line is, I don't need that animals all that often. But if you're going to eat an animal, if you're going to eat an animal, how are you going to do it in such a way as to make sure that we're doing it in a humane way and do it in a right way?

Speaker 2:9:52When is it okay to do it? And so the tourists as well, we need to do it in a way that the person who's ending the animal's life knows why that's happening, that the reason we're doing this, so that the person who's eating it is going to eat it in order to fulfill their purpose on this planet, that they're going to go and do acts of kindness that they're gonna, go and cure diseases. They're going to go and and be wonderful advocates and for people and for causes in this world that they're not going to be gluttonous and stuff their faces and just do it to fulfill their own base animalistic instincts to, to feel great about themselves, but rather they see the, the, the taking of a life as being truly valuable. And as a result, they respect the animal and its life. And also respect the animal in the end of its life.

Speaker 2:10:45What do you say? That's a slippery slope. I think it's a slippery slope when we start using our own judgment for things that are extreme, but rather when the Torah gives us a set of guidelines and teaches us how to think about things. But remember, it's, it's more about thinking about the cause here. The idea is we are here in this world to do good and to do good. We need to act good, which means in everything we do, we need to be aware of what we're doing and why we're doing it. And if we're not acutely aware that our actions have consequences and how can we be sure that our actions will lead to the right results. And so if we don't, if we don't make sure that we're not being cruel to animals in order to eat. If we don't have that as a thing that we're constantly aware of, then perhaps we won't be constantly aware of other concerns when it comes to cruelty in other aspects of our lives.

Speaker 2:11:48So we have training ourselves to have the right mindset and the right approach in our day to day lives to sensitize ourselves. We need to sensitize ourselves. And so the Torah gives us very specific moments where we stop and think because if we stopped and think lit to think literally every moment of every day we'd be paralyzed with all of these thoughts. And have complete inability to be a functioning and productive individuals, but if we never stopped to think about sensitivity, if we never stopped to think about their consequences to our actions and we have to be mindful and we have to be very, very overtly aware of what we're doing. If we never thought about that, then we would be so completely desensitized that we would, you know, eventually, God forbid, do who knows what, who knows? From there,

Speaker 1:12:43look, you're a scientist and an accomplished scientist. It's shocking to me that in today's society, which I have to say, and I'm, I hope I'm not saying this out of place and out of context, but the new religion is science where there's so many people in our society that look at science almost like people perhaps in other time periods in history, looked at religion and looked maybe even a Judaism. How do you reconcile that?

Speaker 2:13:24Well, I don't think we should treat science as a religion. I think we should treat science is science. I don't think. I would hope that none of my colleagues would want students and novices to treat the discipline that we're teaching them as, as a religion, meaning as something that they should, they should accept blindly because there is an aspect of blind faith and religion and there is an aspect of, maybe I disagree with it, but I should nonetheless take it as something that I should consider because there's value in it that has been, you know, communal value, uh, and worldly value. I think the first thing to do in science is to always question, develop a really good question and develop a really good experiment. And it would be kind of heartbreaking to me if people started looking at science as something that they shouldn't question. Because from my perspective, the first thing to do in science is to make a really, really great question.

Speaker 1:14:28And why would that be different than Judaism? I mean, look at the most important Jewish event for most people is let's say the Passover Seder. I mean, that's outside of Hanukkah and Rosh Hashanah. And the first thing we do is we say to the kid asked questions, and that's supposed to be an example of what it's like, right? I think, uh, you know, the door rabbit, didn't he say that the reason why he won the Nobel prizes? Because when he come home from school, his mother wouldn't say what happened in school today. She'd say, Husky behind. Did you ask a good question today? I think

Speaker 2:15:04that the questions we ask in Judaism are there, we're asking the questions of ourselves. What have we done today to make the world better? How could we approach the world to make it better? I think those questions at the Seder. I hate to say it. I think their plants, I think they're written in a book. I think everyone asks the same questions. The scary part of them. You don't ask those questions. I think in science we're trying to ask questions that we don't necessarily know the answer to that. I suppose in some ways we don't always know the answer to the questions in Judaism either. I think sometimes we're trying to get information from ourselves as well. And maybe in that way that these two things are more similar than they are disparate, but the difference is the question in Judaism, Judaism is meant to evoke

Speaker 3:16:06a

Speaker 2:16:08meditative focus on personal growth. Whereas the question in science is meant to learn something brand new that no one has ever learned before. And in that way science is about a search for the unknown. Whereas Judaism is a search for the best possible version of yourself, your family, your world. It's amazing. Sciences is search for the unknown where Judaism is a search for the best possible version of yourself and your family. This is great.

Speaker 1:16:50I just wanted to ask one more question before we end today. So with all of the advancements in science in the 21st century, and you definitely. I'm seeing that and being part of that, what would you say that maybe science can teach Judaism?

Speaker 2:17:11It's a great question. I think this is the question of our generation because someone who says that Judaism is outdated, I think hasn't done enough learning about Judaism and someone who says that science has no value in their Jewish life. I don't think there's enough science and to answer this question, I'm going to to point to a famous teaching of the arbitrary Rebbie, which is that from everything we need to learn and grow and from everything we need to use it out to bring this world to a state of of greater level of perfection, and so the fact that we have so much scientific advancement in this day and age means we have so many more tools for self growth and for helping the world. The fact that in 250 years ago in the Shtetl in Russia, when when values of help your fellow neighbor and transform the world and make this world a more humane and and great place to be, that was great, but it didn't go past the Shtetl.

Speaker 2:18:23It stayed in that one little part of white Russia for forever or what seems like forever from today's standards. Because in moments this podcast will be all over the world. In moments we have the ability to affect the entire world. Heck, we're learning from things like quantum entanglement, that things that are nearly on opposite ends of the world. Can Be connected inextricably through space and time in such a way that there's instantaneous communication between one and the other. We can change and affect things on the other side of the planet in a moment that's mindblowing and that is something that gives us a tool in our Jewish life. The idea that we can not Judaism the laws of Shabbat when it comes to things like health and medicine, well, one of the biggest premises. We do everything to save people's lives. We do anything and everything to save to save a person's life.

Speaker 2:19:39What a wondrous time it is to live in this world where the advancements that could lead to the saving of a life are just every single moment are growing and growing and growing. I think we have an opportunity now to take all of the wealth of the discovery we've made over these last decades and turn it into an engine of change for the better. To take those scientific principles, those advancements, those lessons that we've learned and the guide that Judaism provides us a finding goodness in humanity and everything around us. Finding a way to, okay, you're doing good, try to do better. You think you've reached your pinnacle, helps somebody else reach theirs. We can take these new tools, these scientific discoveries, these technologies and engineering marvels and we can affect more today than ever before and so we have a lot to learn

Speaker 1:20:49and we need to take every opportunity we can to continue to grow. Thank you so much Dr Abrams. Oh my pleasure. Thanks for having me. Dr Abrams is the senior lecturer at Boston University master lecturer and now actually. Oh Wow. That's amazing. Look at that in chemistry and he also is a world renown lecturer on science and Judaism. I'm about to show up. We're Nath. Have a fantastic day.

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